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Rob Hardy: Comics and mathematics


Rob Hardy



Stand back, Spiderman. Back off, Batman. Comic books have a new hero with unexpected powers, and he isn''t even imaginary. He''s Bertrand Arthur William, the Third Earl Russell. To most Americans, Bertrand Russell is notorious for being an outspoken atheist long before the current crop of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and others.  


He was also a pacifist, and during the last decades of his long life he campaigned for nuclear disarmament. He makes his debut in comics, however, not for these causes, but for his work in the early 20th century trying to make sure that mathematics was founded on irrefutable logic. If you think that seems an inauspicious or inappropriate topic for a comic book, you are simply wrong; "Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth" (Bloomsbury) is consistently surprising, informative, and delightful.  


Authors Apostolos Doxiadis, a novelist who has worked mathematical themes into fiction, and Christos H. Papadimitriou, a computer science professor, working with Alecos Papadatos for art and Annie di Donna for color, have made a good-looking 350-page introduction to Russell''s mathematical life as well as to basic mathematical ideas that he resolved, or failed to resolve. Don''t worry if you didn''t like math; these are realms of mathematics far above what you got in high school, and while none of us is going to understand them at Russell''s level of understanding, "Logicomix" provides clear introductions to them and shows why Russell and others were so passionately interested in nailing down all the truth they could. 


"Logicomix," the authors concede, is not a work of history. Its characters are real, but to fit Russell''s exceedingly complicated and productive life into the scheme of a graphic novel, there have been plenty of simplifications and outright inventions. Even the inventions, however, have some basis in fact, like some of Russell''s face-to-face meetings with other mathematicians, depicted here as real events when they were actually by correspondence or publications.  


History is not the important thing in this comic; what is important is the exposition of the adventure of ideas in which Russell and his fellow thinkers were so deeply involved. The frame story is set in 1939, when Russell is in America, and England has just declared war on Germany. Russell was about to give a talk at a university on "The Role of Logic in Human Affairs," (he jokes that if he took the subject literally it would turn out to be the shortest lecture in recorded history), but he is confronted by isolationists who demand he explain how logic could justify participating in a new world war. He tells them we must find out what are the special tools of reason, and even more, we must ask, "What is logic?"  


His lecture is a series of flashbacks on how he and others struggled with this very basic question. The lecture panels are in subdued colors, the flashbacks are somewhat brighter, and most colorful of all are the pages devoted to the authors and artists of the book itself, pondering how to show the ideas and arguing over themes and presentations. 


As a little boy in the 1870s, Russell was brought up by his grandparents. He was mystified by the disappearance of his parents, and fretted once he learned that he had an uncle who was a lunatic and an aunt whose sanity might be questioned. He developed a lifelong anxiety that madness would take him, as it did a surprising number of the mathematicians profiled here.  


As an adolescent, he found refuge in the library, thinking about mathematics, but when he got to Cambridge, he found that this last recourse of reason was undermined by circular reasoning and intuition. Unshakable logical foundations were needed, and he determined that he himself would construct them and would build the mathematical edifice upon them. He traveled to the continent to visit Gottlob Frege and Georg Cantor, and in 1900 he attended the International Congress of Mathematicians, and watched the great mathematicians David Hilbert and Henri Poincaré sparring over the importance of proof versus intuition.  


Russell himself caused a stir in 1901 when he invented what is now called Russell''s paradox. Imagine, he said, a village where there is a law that every man has to get a shave every day, and anyone who does not shave himself must have the village barber shave him. The paradox is, does the barber shave himself? If he does, he is not supposed to, and if he doesn''t, he has to. Stated this way, it is a puzzle, but it had profound implications for both logic and mathematical set theory.  


Frege read the paradox on the day the next volume of his book on the foundations of arithmetic was to be published, and in an act of intellectual courage Russell admired, put an addendum to the book saying, "Hardly anything more unfortunate can befall a scientific writer, than to have one of the foundations of his edifice shaken after the work is finished." Russell had not set out just to shake mathematical foundations, but to make new ones, and for a decade he labored with Alfred North Whitehead on Principia Mathematica, an attempt to weed out paradoxes. This was a work going back to fundamentals so deep that it takes the first 362 of its thousands of pages to get to the useful demonstration that 1 + 1 = 2. 


One of the people who read the book (to Russell''s knowledge, the only person to do so) was Kurt Gödel, who was to show that Russell and Whitehead''s goal was illusory; he mathematically proved that no logical system could capture all of mathematics, and that there would always be mathematical questions that could not be answered and mathematical truths that could not be proved. Russell''s great quest turned out to be a failure, but it turned out to be a hugely productive one, as from the work of Gödel, Turing and others profiled here, we do have a groundwork for mathematics and logic, only it is not at all the bedrock that Russell had set out to find. The search for truth here is not just Russell''s but that of mathematicians through the centuries. 


"Logicomix" is good-looking, with glossy papers and a rich color scheme. The often witty pictures take every advantage of comic book art, with exaggerated perspective, elevated views, big-letter sound effects, and nightmares depicted as reality. Russell''s story is a great one, and piquant when including details of his erratic and decidedly illogical love life. The book winds up with the authors and their crew going to a performance of Aeschylus''s "Oresteia" that nicely sums up big themes of war, justice, madness and wisdom that are within Russell''s tale. I sincerely hope if you know anyone interested in comics or anyone with the slightest interest in mathematics or philosophy, or if you know a young person whose thoughts might turn that way, that you will ensure a copy gets into that person''s hands. 



Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]


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